Dervish: The Rise and Fall of an African Empire by Phillip Warner

Most British people’s knowledge of the Sudan Campaigns of the late Nineteenth Century will probably be limited to Corporal Jones’s stories of the ‘fuzzy-wuzzies’ and of serving under Lord Kitchener. Yet as often occurs with some of the less well-known British campaigns, its importance has often been overlooked.

Pen and Sword have reprinted this classic by Phillp Warner, who was one of Britain’s foremost military historians. A long-standing lecturer at Sandhurst, he seems to have excelled at that minefield that is the military biography. The style of writing does feel rather dated, and despite the title Warner does concentrate more on the British side of the Sudan Wars than the Dervishes themselves.

How did the British Army come to be fighting in the Sudan? Firstly, its important to remember that Britain had strong interest in Egypt. In the 1880’s a volatile leader, the Mahdi, came to power in the Sudan, and went abou aggressively building a Dervish Empire. In a sense, like the 19th Century campaigns in Afghanistan, the Sudan wars were not about conquest per se, as they were both pretty barren countries with nothing worth conquering. Rather, the aim was to defend the borders of Empire, what we might call ’empire creep’.

Revisionist historians who try to paint the British Empire as an aggressive, bloodthirtsty enterprise might like to read this book. After General Gordon was killed in the first campaign in 1885, the Prime Minister of the time, Gladstone, refrained from attempting to reconquer the Sudan. Although the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 is routinely described as ‘avenging Gordon’, the distance in time is notable. In terms of the impact of Empire on British society, we can also see how those involved in the Sudan were very keen to observe the physical characteristics of the Devishes, and their observations informed theories on race.

Campaigns such as that in the Sudan are important not only for their military and political impact at the time, but the lasting impact that colonial service had on the British Army and British society in general. The Army that went to war in 1914 was overwhelmingly one used to fighting imperial wars. Commanders such as Kitchener and even Admiral Beatty – who commanded one of the Nile gunboats – cut their in the Sudan. Winston Churchill even charged at the Battle of Omdurman as a young Lieutenant.

The major problem with this book is the lack of referencing. Whilst Warner uses an impressive range of numbers, statistics and quotes, the reader is given no indication at all as to where they actually came from. Which is a real pity, as this is a very readable book. It covers one of those important – but often overlooked – colonial wars of the Victorian era.

Dervish is published by Pen and Sword


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